Bloc Mirror: In Adapting the Strugatsky Brothers, Great Directors Wade Into the Unknown


More so than most genres, science fiction is a release valve for up-to-the-moment fears and anxieties. But each culture’s docket of dread is different, and to us, another society’s futuristic/dystopian conjurings can feel like being trapped in an utter stranger’s bad dream. The distinct personality of Communist bloc sci-fi, for instance, tended to be far weirder, and far more willfully modernist, than what we were used to in the twentieth-century West. The pressures of real-life totalitarianism could squeeze the speculative/prophetic imagination into plasma; as a result, that subculture often sought detours around reason, looking inward, eschewing the easy equations of chase-and-fight scenarios so beloved by a century of Americans and embracing the indefatigably ambiguous. Reality itself was often under question, as though the entire bloc was the cause-and-effect-free zone of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

Paradigmatic of its time and place, and never out of video print in any region, Stalker (1979) was adapted from a novel, Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, prolific Russian brothers who epitomized this Warsaw Pact sensibility, and whose filmed bookshelf is mined in the selective Anthology retro “The Strugatsky Brothers on Film,” which kicks off today. Riding on the heels of a week-long Anthology program of Stanislaw Lem films, the Strug series is a more savory affair; these brothers were testy Cold War cooperatives whose sanctioned novels are nevertheless structured around metaphysical uncertainty. Work after work could be characterized as an exploratory drill into unknowability, and a report on how that unknowability impacts modern technological humans. A few writers aside (Philip K. Dick, John Brunner), English-language sci-fi bigwigs tended to make their mark cutting a strenuously logical path through the dreaded future. In the vapor-land of Soviet-controlled reality-suspension, everything, including speculation about exactly how bad the future could be, was up for grabs.

Maybe inevitably, given Soviet life, a strain of Beckettian/Kafkaesque existentialist frisson is baked into the state’s fiction and its various film adaptations, which sometimes feel less genre-faithful than simply disorientingly trippy. This unmoored quality is no mistake, given that Tarkovsky, the movies’ most ambitious metaphysician, looked to both Lem’s and the Strugs’ brands of philosophical sci-fi, converting mysterious paperback pulp into the most daunting of art films, and reveling above all in the stories’ collapse of reason.

Fans of Stalker will recognize in the rest of the series a similar textual unwillingness to nail anything down. Sporting a killer title but suffering from a low-budget shoot that took place entirely in a small and rather ugly Estonian mountain inn, Grigori Kromanov’s Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979) follows a hip detective summoned for mysterious reasons to a Saint Bernard–patrolled lodge. Occurring promptly after his arrival is an avalanche and then a murder, all of which is soon rendered moot by doppelgängers, resurrections, disappearances, undisclosed-yet-valuable briefcase contents, and aliens. As conscientiously absurd as it is, not to mention a little silly, it’s an arrow-straight line of narrative intent beside Alexander Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse (1988), the prolific master’s brooding breakout film, and a patience-testing post-apocalyptic dawdle that plays more like third-world doc than straight science fiction. The Strugatsky book, as its title, Definitely Maybe, suggests, is decidedly indefinite and dreamlike in its evocation of unseen forces, but Sokurov goes it one better, honing in on a young doctor stuck in the middle of a post-blast wasteland — actually Turkmenistan, though it could pass for any post-colonial hunk of Africa — and obliquely persisting in his work despite undefinable interventions. Angels, earthquakes, talking corpses, and Stalinist relics figure in, but for the most part Sokurov designed the film as an elusive tissue of non-happenings and mysterious nexuses, all of it sucking the dusty air of Soviet-satellite poverty.

The Strugs’ Hard to Be a God, in which an astronaut plays demigod on a war-torn planet stuck in its own bloody Middle Ages, has had by now a solid run — first with Peter Fleischmann’s 1989 epic, hilariously tricked out as it is with huge hair-band wigs, VHS-era sword-and-sorcery grapplings, and Jodorowsky-in-the-mountains iconography. (Werner Herzog shows up for a few emotional scenes before being quickly dispatched on a pike, Game of Thrones–style.) Secondly, of course, came Alexei German’s 2013 version, some fourteen years in the making and an utterly Boschian shitstorm of reeking ruins, animal parts, unruly fires, and deformed minions, shot in the late German’s typical all-in style, which you could call cinematic intubation. To evoke the German Hard to Be a God’s experience is to bust the ceiling on metaphors for mud, phlegm, and nausea; giving up on a clear narrative, the movie takes an epic lurch through the circle of the Inferno Dante left out, where we are buried chin-deep in wet manure.

Some of the rarer Strugatsky adaptations remain unavailable (including two more versions, in Finnish and Greek, of Definitely Maybe), but perhaps the most adept surprise in the series is Konstantin Lopushansky’s Dead Man’s Letters (1986), a ferocious anti-nuclear death march that may be the most visually daunting portrait of an irradiated society ever shot. Co-written by Boris Strugatsky after Arkady had fallen ill, the movie places us in the cellars of a great museum, now in ruins, where the staff and various stragglers face slow poisoning in the dark or deportation to a great central bunker. Our hero, an aging scholar (Rolan Bykov), watches his wife in her final throes and is determined to venture outside in the toxic ruins, stepping amid the scorched corpses, to find his lost son. Lopushansky is waist-deep in details and ideas, and his film gulps up monstrous amounts of convincing iodine-tinted imagery, as the dead souls of the story suggest dust-covered Beckett figures in gas masks as much as walking warnings about atomic holocaust. It was Lopushansky’s first feature of six, none of which have had American releases; his 2006 version of the Strugatskys’ mutant drama The Ugly Swans is also, regretfully, not included in the series.

‘The Strugatsky Brothers on Film’
Anthology Film Archives
November 10–21